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July 24, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Let’s See How Far We’ve Come

As Dani and I thought about what we’d like to see in this queer edition of Salient, we reflected on the state of UniQ as it stands right now, both at Victoria University and throughout the country. As we come to the end of our time as co-presidents for 2017 we considered what we feel the goals of UniQ are, and how we are going about achieving those goals. One of the problems that plagues student volunteer organisations is a lack of stability and recording — prior to ~2014 we have no record (that we can find so far) of UniQ at VUW.

We did have one small thread of hope — Grant Robertson. A familiar name around these parts, we were lucky enough to meet Grant at Clubs Week 2016 as he did his rounds of the group tables. We chatted cordially, then he casually dropped that he was the original founder of UniQ. We thanked him for paving the way for queer representation on campus and saved this little nugget of knowledge for innocuous UniQ-based small talk (you’d be surprised how often this comes up in our day-to-day lives). However, given our invigorated interest in uncovering our history, we decided we needed to dig deeper.

When we went in, we knew almost nothing. We had no idea about the origins, motivations, or processes around the introduction of UniQ into the tertiary sphere, and the effect this would go on to have in the way queer support was understood and approached by students and the institutions they populated.

Conversations percolated while Grant was at Otago University in the early ’90s. Homosexual Law Reform was only a few years old and, while marriage equality was a distant dream, the idea of civil unions was on the table. But lecturers and staff had little consciousness of the specific welfare, health, or housing issues that queer students faced, and the “queer experience” never entered the contemplation of the university. Grant was the President of the Otago University Students Association (OUSA) in 1993, when queer groups were mostly “ad hoc and unstructured” — a group existed for gay students, and there was a “really, really strong” lesbian group, but there was no visible trans (or other) presence. Post-matriculation, Grant moved to Wellington and worked for the New Zealand Union of Students’ Association (NZUSA), where the focus shifted to building a nationwide network of support groups for queer students in tertiary institutions. In 1995–96 NZUSA managed to employ Matt Soeberg as their Queer Project Worker — a term representing significant development in both the unification of the separate groups, and the reclamation of “queer” as a self-owned term.  

Matt came onboard and spent the year completing a thorough audit of all services on all campuses, travelling around New Zealand to investigate and report back to NZUSA. The name “UniQ” arose from this research, although the exact origin is still unknown. The audit revealed a “massive need” for programs and support all around the country, including for health services, counselling services, and general visibility on campuses. Based on this research, the 1996 NZUSA co-presidents (Grant, a gay man, and Alayna Ashby, a lesbian woman) aimed to establish a position that would coordinate the various UniQ factions around the country (a position which still finds an analogue in the NZUSA Women’s Coordinator). The ultimate goal of these newly established UniQ groups was to get the universities on board and to get them involved in the provision of these services for staff and students alike. However, budgetary restrictions and the first attempt to introduce voluntary student membership quashed their efforts.

But UniQ lived on. There were national conferences for years, into the early 2000s, and there are still functioning UniQ groups at most of the major university campuses around New Zealand. The individual campus groups had much the same goals as we do now (providing a place for students to be themselves; a place they could be safe and happy) but they also faced much the same resistance and opposition then as we do now (general malaise and denial of the necessity for such groups). But like Grant says: when you see institutions that are still in place over twenty years later, you know that they’re not just based on silly ideas they’re really needed. And he doesn’t stop there; he suspects that national level coordination is still needed because that’s where the policy influence can come in to effect real, positive change.

Various student associations have picked up the mantle, integrating more systematic and consistent queer support at an institutional level, rather than relying on the volunteering student groups to do the heavy lifting. This fulfills part of the original goal that NZUSA had in creating UniQ — by launching a national network to create consistency and continuity, the support available to students would not be dependant on the presence or absence of volunteering students, or determined by which university a student chose to attend. Unfortunately, support and care has still not met the goal of consistency; some of our tertiary institutions are surging ahead, and some are lagging behind. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out where Victoria sits.

Part of how I’ve approached my job as UniQ president over the last two years is centering the work that is needed to bring Victoria University up to scratch on its provision of support services for its queer and questioning staff and students. Prior to my tenure as president at the beginning of last year, our university did absolutely, literally nothing in this area — a defect in service that I highlighted in an opinion piece published in Salient in June 2016, titled “Victoria University is failing its queer students”. That piece prompted the university to reach out to UniQ, seeking our assistance in helping to implement some form of structural queer support for future generations of students. Over the last 12 months I’ve had dozens of meetings, consulted on several documents and procedures, and advocated as hard as I possibly can to try and get queer students a seat at the table — and maybe even something to eat.

As one might expect, progress has been piecemeal. Queer students are now listed on the Equity and Diversity Strategy as being a group in need of structural support. Mauri Ora have been working with UniQ to ensure they are as approachable and knowledgeable as possible when dealing with queer students. Tutorial and class rolls no longer include dead names (the name given to a person at birth, which may no longer align with their identity). We have a dialogue. The university is listening.

But actions speak louder than words. While the progress we have achieved so far should not be disparaged, it is simply not enough. This isn’t just about students. Staff, both academic and support, benefit hugely from having strong, visible, diverse support structures and networks. The university benefits from having an engaged, active, and supported student body. The city benefits from a university that walks the talk — that values and encourages all its members fully and equally to achieve their goals and realise their potential.  

We’re on a journey as a country, as Grant likes to say, from tolerating diversity to accepting and embracing it. And honestly, we’re over being tolerated — we’re not an annoyance to be put up with. It’s time that Victoria got on board with celebrating our unique and distinct contribution to the university fabric, and that means a genuine commitment (read: money) from the university to step up to the plate that we’ve laid out for them. Dani and I, as volunteering students who will finish our degrees and leave at the end of the year, can only take this so far. We need Victoria to rise to the challenge. This movement is not stopping. Victoria has already missed its opportunity to be progressive and ahead of the curve. All we can hope for now is that they don’t miss the boat all together.

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